In this then and now post we look at the small community of Frank Alberta. The first image shows downtown shortly after the famous Frank Slide disaster occurred and the second, the same view today. In both, the jumble of rocks and boulders stands out in the background.
The first image is taken from an old postcard sourced by this author and in that picture we can see the many businesses that once lined the town’s main street. In our image, nothing much remains from the first, save for the slide in behind. The area that was the town is part empty field and part industrial park now.
In some ways, one would be hard pressed to know these two pictures were shot from the same location. If not for the mountain’s silhouette that is which helps lines up the shot perfectly.
The post card is undated, although some text at the bottom gives us some hints when it could have been taken. It states that the location is “Frank Alta” (Alta meaning Alberta) and so this means it had to been photograph in 1905 or later. In 1903 when the slide happened, the town was in the Northwest Territories and on photos this would have been stated accordingly. Okay, for now we’ll say post 1905…
Further text mentions it was taken “soon” after the disaster, but that could mean nearly anything. A couple years…five years…who knows? This vague statement does not really help much. We do know the Frank we see in the photo was mostly gone by 1911, so we’ll now guess the postcard was taken between 1905, the earliest possible date we established already, and roughly that later date. More likely though it was from one of the earlier years in that span, when the slide was fresh in everyone’s minds and still newsworthy.
The disaster took place on the flanks of Turtle Mountain (we’ve climbed it). I’ve included a view from its summit (taken in 2009) showing the extent of the slide zone. It’s huge! There are lots of big cracks and fissures near the summit which is cause for concern. It’s thought that large boulders could break free from this area and so to monitor that they’ve set up sensors nearby. Some of the cracks are dangerous in other ways and are deep and wide enough to swallow a person whole.
From the lofty summit view we can see where most of Frank was – in a green space just to the left of the slide zone just up from the Crowsnest River (which was for a time blocked by the slide).
Legend states that the local first nations tended to steer clear of Turtle Mountain. They seemed to sense its nasty potential.
The postcard seen was taken by a photographer named Spalding who operated out of Fernie BC. This fellow, full name Joseph Spalding, was active in the region from 1904 to 1924. Many examples of his work can be seen online, praising the region’s scenery, showing its industry and capturing newsworthy events in and around this area of Alberta and southeastern BC. Fernie, in British Columbia, is some 70km west of Frank.
As you can see by the old photo, the town was for the most part unscathed, contrary to many legends which had most of the buildings and populace buried. Only the eastern edge of town, the railway line and the coal mine were obliterated.
Again, many legends state that most people in town died in the disaster, but in fact only 70-90 perished, out of some 600 people that called Frank home. Legends about the slide could take up a whole report by themselves!
There is much debate over what could have triggered the slide. Many blamed the coal mine outright, which operated at a point on the western edge of the slide zone. However, it’s more likely it was only a contributing factor.
There were many other reasons to consider. For example the formation of the mountain was such that the outer layer of limestone capped a softer inner core. This essentially made the mountain top heavy, unstable and prone to movement. A unseasonably warm spring further exacerbated the problem and water would creep into fissures and freeze overnight further putting pressures on the already weak structure.
All of these together conspired to cause the disaster. In fact, weeks before the slide there were many warning signs (tremors, minor rock falls) of what was to come. No one seemed to pay them much mind.
After the slide, the railway was repaired and the mine quickly reopened and in spite of what happened the town seem to flourish, swelling to over a thousand souls before declining in the 1910s. Ongoing concerns about further slides forced people to move further away from the mountain and all of what was seen in the old postcard was for the most part gone by 1911.
Today Frank is home to perhaps a couple hundred souls and is part of the municipality of the Crowsnest Pass. It’s often our base and we rent a cabin there several time a year, its location being perhaps half a kilometre from the point where this “then and now” series was taken.
It’s amazing to see how little grows in the slide zone. In the over hundred years since the first photo was taken, only a few small trees have taken root.
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: December, 2013.
Location: Frank, AB, Crowsnest Pass.